By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
2012 Top Ten…. plus…
It’s been a good year for movies. Not always in America, though Sundance 2012 gave us some very good and challenging pictures, especially docs. Foreign-language films did well by movie lovers in the spring and certainly through Cannes. The summer movie season was uneven, but seemed to satisfy an unusual number of unsatisfiable people. And the fall was loaded with very good films.
I have listed 35 films… which leaves out a lot of films I really liked. And that’s before removing Toronto movies that haven’t been released. I am also doing a doc Top Ten, leaving all docs off the #11-#35 lists (there’s one in my Top Ten). I could easily go another 20 on films I liked, but just don’t think of when using the word “best.”
For me, the hardest decision is right at the top. Two movies that couldn’t one much more different. One, an intimate journey to a natural death. The other, an epic thriller of unusual intelligence and insight. I finally decided on a tie between these two remarkable films, listed in alphabetical order.
1. (tie) Amour – Michael Haneke has become the The Great Man of world cinema. His films challenge audiences bit only to examine big ideas, but in most cases, to unravel just what the question the film is asking. Amour has a small mystery at the end, but the journey to that moment is so intense and intimate that it won’t start fights at dinner after the film… just shared ideas between people who have been stripped bare of their artifice. Perhaps the greatest magic trick of all is that we experience over a year of a shared life and it just evaporates over the running time, as real life does. This is one of those soulful films that can be placed amongst the list of greats, not a fun picture to experience over and over again, but absolutely undeniable in its power, finesse and humanity.
1. (tie) Zero Dark Thirty – Comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia are not inappropriate. Boal & Bigelow deliver a movie so epic, so deeply satisfying, so raw and real feeling that the immediate reaction amongst those who fear the subtext that some could take from the film’s fact-based story that they exploded with rage. If it wasn’t so frustrating to see the first de-euphemised studio-level feature about the War On Terror, it would be a huge compliment to the film and the filmmakers. Of course, I consider this kind of thinking about a film—pretty much any film—to be idiotic… not unlike the rage from a religious group over the representation of their chosen deity in anything less than a pure format. What ZD30 has shown regarding the issue of torture, more than anything else, is that people with politic agendas would like to whitewash history in retrospect. Relatively contemporaneous reports on the issue suggest that the film is dead accurate in regards to the issue.
But a great movie is not the sum of its political hubbub. The torture in Zero Dark Thirty is required viewing, especially for those who shy away from the idea of witnessing such barbarism. It is what We, The United States of America, chose to do as a matter of policy for a time. It was not rogue stupidity or excess. And as the film shows, it is most often quite ineffective and frustrating. And now and again, a sliver of value emerges. The 2 hours of the film in which one real-life character doggedly pursues that sliver and engages an entire organization to built the case she thinks can lead somewhere important is remarkable. This is not just her journey. It is a ride through a complex process, many dead ends, changes of tactic and strategy, lives lost in the same pursuit, politics, seeming defeat, and ultimately, through a decade of hard work by scores of people, an event that changed the world… if not in reality, then in perception.
A movie that can entertain wildly while challenging the audience to think about its sense of the world and to acknowledge the messy ramifications that decisions made to look simple so as to be sold politically… this is a rare and wonderful thing. I don’t take offense at the many bright people who would like to see each of the big issues in this film explored in greater depth from more angles. But that was not what this film was meant to be. It is the embodiment of what we, as film lovers, think of as “70s movies.” It is a masterpiece.
3. Rust & Bone – I tend to think of Jacques Audiard as a nastier Bob Zemeckis… a master of genre with something more to say underneath the obvious entertainment of it all. I was introduced to Audiard via Baxter (tag line: Beware the dog that talks), back in 1990. He was a co-writer. He wouldn’t direct his first feature until his early 40s, with 1994’s See How They Fall, which, befitting the season, starred Jean-Louis Trintignant. He’s made 5 films since and 3, by my count, are legitimate masterpieces. Rust & Bone got off to a slightly rocky start at Cannes last May. Prison dramas, like Audiard’s last film, A Prophet, are one of the genres in which critics allow themselves to luxuriate. Romantic dramas, not so much. And indeed, for all the genre conventions included in R&B, it is a story about love. It also breaks the conventions of all the genres it touches – hardluck guy, fight movie, hot chick finds inner beauty, tragic accident, girl finds animal, handicap to overcome, lowlife learns to be responsible parent, melodrama, hard-R sex flick, dark comedy – creating its own brutal, romantic, sweet, bitter tale that is unlike anything every before.
Marion Cotillard gets the showy role and does her best work ever, seeming more comfortable in her own language and playing perhaps her most grounded character. And the Ginger to her Fred – who is really the lead of the film – is Matthias Schoenaerts, who was so great in Bullhead last year. He may have the harder role. He is a big, strong, good-looking guy who screws up in virtually every way possible, often intentionally. Fr the movie to work, you have to be on his side and stay on his side. And Audiard loads the deck against him. Still, he keeps the audience connected, not unlike the way Clooney can… but this is a better role than Clooney has every had (the closest being Michael Clayton). Lots of great supporting performances, but especially Corinne Masiero, who has one of her brother’s natural advantages in the story, but manages a dogged kindness that makes this one of the great supporting performances.
4. The Master – I love a great puzzle movie. This one follows in the steps of Eyes Wide Shut, both in its intricacies and the frustration it offers most audiences. Paul Thomas Anderson is still in pursuit of his inner Kubrick. He’s getting closer. This film kind of reminds me of the step or two before Crimes & Misdemeanors for Woody Allen, who was looking for the perfect balance of his two sides… but this is more accomplished than those Woody experiments. I still feel that Boogie Nights is PTA’s most complete work. But it is a fairly conventional narrative by the standards that he works in and the Kubrick standard. All of his films since have been more complex conceptually, but he hasn’t found the combination of deep complexity and audience accessibility – at least on a big cult level – that makes Kubrick so singular (and The Coens, who also work that turf, so consistently fascinating).
I believe Freddie and Dodd to be two sides of one brain, maturing to the point where Dodd (and his wife) decide Freddie must be forever banished. This isn’t a clever trick, like Fight Club, but something far less literal. But there are plenty smart people who interpret it differently. I think the nude party, followed by the marital masturbation, is defining. If you believe the nudity is real, you see the movie in a very different way than those of us who believe we are seeing Dodd slipping into his inner Freddie.
But puzzle though it is, Anderson is also crafting, with his amazing team, every shot of the film the way a master paints. Each image is a stroke of the brush, not just a story being told. For that reason, this film is too special to put any lower on my list this year.
5. The Grey – I just love this movie. Joe Carnahan is a madman, a guy’s guy, and, as it turns out, a deep thinker. Another movie about life and death, The Grey is the most conventional genre piece on this list of ten. But every time you think you are getting “one of those movies,” Carnahan raises the bar. One of Liam Neeson’s all-time best performances, we feel the cold, the fear, the exhilaration of being challenged by death… a manly tale in the best way. This is the kind of movie George C. Scott might have made in his prime with a director who understood all that beautiful rage.
6. Lincoln – As unSpielberg a Spielberg movie as we have seen since sections of A.I., this is a true collaboration between writer and director, with Tony Kushner’s script palpably at the core of the work. There is some sentiment here, but mostly, it is a smart, scholarly, demanding work that reminds us of how much Lincoln’s story is still the story of leading America. Not much but the costumes has changed in over 150 years. The craftsmanship is impeccable. And in Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg found an actor who loses himself in the way we remember young DeNiro and Pacino and Hoffman… but even more so. DDL is rarely given the chance to show off.
7. The Gatekeepers – This year’s great doc, Dror Moreh’s second. isn’t a ground breaker in doc filmmaking. It’s not the most beautiful. It’s not the most complex. But like Deliver Us From Evil a few years ago, Moreh delivers on-camera interviews that burn the house down. Great issue docs by Kirby Dick and Eugene Jarecki this year… but those are big subjects by terrific directors. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff. The leaders of Israel’s top security organization, the Shin Bet, on camera, telling their history and the organization’s history with Palestinian relationship, expressing their passion and love for the State of Israel… but ultimately expressing a pretty much unanimous perspective on the future of this relationship from the highest levels of the Israeli government.
8. The Perks of Being A Wallflower – A kind of antidote to Twilight, Perks captures the ebb and flow of coming of age in a way we haven’t seen in quite a while. This is one of those movies that surprises with its unwillingness to do what you expect, but without seeming to try to surprise you. Terrific performances that melt into the storytelling. Strong work from a first-time director, who also wrote the book and the screenplay. This is just one of those sticky movies that everyone wishes for each time they go into a movie theater.
9. Ted – Crude, rude, and socially unacceptable. Sorry, purists, but this is the comedy of the year. It’s ingenious, it’s insane, it’s shockingly believable, and mostly, it’s just plain funny. I am still unhappy that the writer/director/co-star allowed himself from very 2012 references. They will age and get in the way of classic status for the film. But this was one of those very, very rare films whose idea was not destroyed in the process of making it. “What if a kid promised to be best friends forever with his teddy bear and it came true… and 30 years later, there are consequences?” Bingo.
10. Cloud Atlas – This one is a matter of taste and skill and more feeling than intellect. It’s a universal opera, interested in so many of the issues of human life, love, fear, freedom, and death. But it’s the way The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer put it all together that is truly revolutionary. I doubt the filmmakers feel this way, but I imagine this film could be re-cut 100 different ways and still work. It’s like listening to great music, open to interpretation by the player, but somehow, in some unclear way, sticks to your spirit if you allow it a place. In time, it will, I think, be one of those films that turns up on your viewing portal at any point in the film, and floods your senses in an undeniable way.
I don’t think you are stupid or constipated if you don’t love or even like this film. As much as any film on this list, it speaks to the evolution of the motion picture experience. Filmmakers are making films with less interest in, as we have called it for a few decades, four quadrants. It doesn’t have to be everyone’s taste. But for those whose taste it is, it is sweet, sweet nectar.
MY NEXT FIVE (in alphabetical order): After Lucia, Looper, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, This is 40
MY NEXT FIVE (in alphabetical order): Argo, Django Unchained, End of Watch, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly
AND ALSO SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED (in alphabetical order): The Amazing Spider-Man, Anna Karenina, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave, The Dark Knight Rises, The Deep Blue Sea, Flight, Haywire, The Intouchables, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Moonrise Kingdom, Paranorman, Prometheus, Take This Waltz, Wreck-It-Ralph.
MY DOCUMENTARY TOP TEN (in alphabetical order): Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Chasing Ice, The Gatekeepers, The House I Live In, How To Survive A Plague, The Imposter, The Invisible War, Paul Williams Still Alive, The Queen of Versailles,West of Memphis,